For a Split Second, I Thought the Next-Gen Oculus Rift Was Real Life

Watching new video tech on Oculus Rift feels like you're inside a 3D movie.

Mar 10 2014, 2:45pm
Image courtesy of Félix Lajeunesse

The line to demo the next-gen Oculus Rift prototypes at SXSW yesterday afternoon spanned the length of the block. Inside, the company was showcasing three innovative virtual reality experiences on the Crystal Core and high-res HD prototype, which have a super low latency so as you look around the virtual world your head movement is tracked seamlessly in real-time, which does a much better job of tricking your brain into thinking the environment is real.

The main attraction was the much-anticipated Eve Valkyrie shooter game that lets you fly through space and aim at enemy ships with your gaze. It was trippy as hell, though I didn’t spend a lot of time fighting the space war, opting instead to fly all over the place like a giddy idiot—I dove and zig-zagged and spun around in 360 degrees as fast as the controller would go for a while until I started to feel nauseous.

But the demo that really caught my attention takes you on a much more subtle but no less futuristic VR trip called live-action video, which the developer prefers to call an "experience of presence.” Rather than flying through the cosmos, the experience lets you kick it with a musician as he composes on a piano in his apartment. But it's so realistic that when I first put the on the headset and headphones, for a split second, before I was really conscious of what my mind was telling me, I figured this guy was just sitting in front of me in the room.

The live-action video is a proof of concept for a new way of creating virtual reality art. It’s shot with a VR-ready camera and developed into seamless 3D stereo, 360-degree live-action content—a process the creators call “capturing reality."  The image was a bit fuzzy and pixelated, but still leaps and bounds more lifelike than an HD or 3D movie. Plus, it's a movie you're in.

As I moved my head around, up and down, behind me over my shoulder, I got a 360 view of this guy's room, replete with records and clothes strewn over the hardwood floors, trees out the window, and a dog sprawled on the floor nearby. Granted, nothing really happened; the musician, Montreal artist Patrick Watson, was just workshopping a song on the keys (it was quite pretty) and the dog rolled around a bit absentmindedly on the floor.

Still, it was unbelievably cool. I talked to the director/creator of the project, Félix Lajeunesse, after the demo, and he gave me a glimpse into how virtual video could evolve as the technology advances. He explained that instead of taking a home video of your kids as they grow up or an aging relative for posterity, you could make a VR video of yourself hanging out with them—a sensation much more acute and personal than traditional photography. It would almost be like freezing time.

At least, eventually. Lajeunesse said that live video is maybe three or four years down the road. The next step for developers/filmmakers is making the "experience of presence" actually interactive, so the people in the virtual world can interact with you, the user.

Oculus Rift developers can program this so it's entirely intuitive—no buttons or controller; you’re just hanging out in the moment, looking around and moving around, and and the scenery responds accordingly. Maybe you look at the dog on the floor of this musician's apartment and then look away from it. That eye movement could activate a particular pre-filmed action where the dog walks over to you to get your attention back.

But when I asked Lajeunesse what this meant for the future of film, he was careful to draw a distinction between virtual reality experiences and "cinema" as we know it. In the movies, there's always a disconnect between the actors and the audience: the screen—the “third wall.” But VR knocks down the wall—it's not a story being told to you, it's a real-time experience that you're in.

It forces a change the filmmaking paradigm, Lajeunesse said, and that requires a new way of thinking about the art form. "This is what we consider to be a whole new medium and territory for exploration," he said. It could be the next evolution of filmmaking, or usurp it entirely—once the tech sophisticates and becomes more user-friendly. Wearing goofy plastic 3D-glasses in the theater is bad enough, let alone a bulky $400 headset. Regardless, the future looks more immersive than ever.